‘Boy Erased’ Review: Committed performances can’t save Joel Edgerton’s misguided take on the violence of conversion therapy
WARNING: This review contains explicit descriptions of rape. Proceed at your own risk.
Many less-than-convincing cinematic studies of sensitive subjects can be at least somewhat excused by their good intentions. Boy Erased is not one of these films. Perhaps did Joel Edgerton truly believe that what he was making would in some way help in the fight against one of the most appallingly cruel and unfortunately long-running traditions against young LGBT people. His story of a young gay man sent to a conversion therapy program by his father, a Baptist priest, could have been a good, impactful, and even necessary film in the right hands. With this director, the finished product is far from the quiet beauty of The Miseducation of Cameron Post or the biting satire of But I’m A Cheerleader: it is an uninformed, dangerous and often utterly irresponsible portrayal of a poorly researched subject.
Boy Erased is based on a memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley, and I can only hope that the author is happy with the way the film portrays his experience. Edgerton’s film is however very clearly not an attempt to be faithful. The main character is not named Conley but Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges, in an unusually robotic performance), clearly separating the author from his cinematic depiction. This will to separate the two could have meant that Edgerton wanted to make something new out of Jared, give him a personality that the constraints of a real-life counterpart would not have allowed. However, Jared’s personality is hard to find. He is only a shadow of what a young man of his age should be. He has reasons to be this way, considering the horrors that he has been put through in the last few months of his life, but the film has no interest in truly exploring his trauma.
Indeed, as you will see in the first hour or so of the film, the first trauma that Jared encounters is one of rape. It is his first sexual experience with a man, when he is still struggling with coming to terms with his own sexual orientation. The scene is incredibly violent, both for Jared and for the audience. Considering this, it would have seemed only logical for it to have great importance for both of them: but soon enough, it is like it has never even happened. Whether you end up blaming poor writing or an inadequate knowledge of the subject, the consequences of this inadequate representation loom over the film as a whole.
As Henry pulls away from Jared after violating him, he breaks down on the room of the floor, crying, justifying his crime by saying that it is a consequence of his poor self-esteem, that there is something wrong with him and that he can’t do anything about it. It is a thoughtless conclusion to a scene that was already bordering on incompetence. Of course, rape and other violence motivated by internalized homophobia is definitely something to be explored and a conversation that needs to happen, but Boy Erased is clearly not the place for it. For a film that positions itself as anti-homophobia, it plays the strange “maybe the real homophobes are actually… gay people ?” card way more often than anyone could have expected. As the film ends on the obligatory “Where are they now ?” montage that every film based on a true story seems to need, a line of text informs us that the priest in charge of the conversion therapy program turned out to be gay, a piece of information which was met by laughter from my audience. Now, I’m no expert of course — but if a person whose self-hatred runs so deep it motivates them to dedicate their life to torturing their peers is considered comedy gold by an audience after they have finished watching a film that is supposed to make them more sensitive to homophobia, I would say pretty confidently that this film hasn’t done its job very well.
This is the main problem with Boy Erased: Edgerton has no idea of how to handle the themes he lays out, and ends up throwing disjointed and sometimes downright dangerous messages at the audience he is supposed to convince. The director said himself that the film was aimed at parents of gay people to change their mind about homosexuality, which is why the clumsy handling of the fundamental themes of the story can’t be simply excused as innocent mistakes. The film is sometimes not far from saying that the first traumatic experience of rape mentioned earlier is what made Jared gay, inherently linking male homosexuality to violence. Boy Erased as a title should be a reference to what the program and his parents did to the young man — but more often than not, it is the film itself that ends up erasing him as a person.
The other characters aren’t allowed much more development either. While in the conversion therapy, we are only given hints of who the other participants are. Some of them believe in the program, such as Jon (Xavier Dolan, who has slowly but surely been infiltrating American cinema in the past year, which could not delight me more), others are just pretending to comply, like Gary (Troye Sivan), others will be destroyed by its inherent violence, like Cameron (Britton Sear). However, these characters aren’t given much more than their defining characteristic as a replacement for a personality. In a better film, this lack of knowledge could have been the indicator of a cold place that does not even allow for people to get to know each other — here, it just looks like yet another way the film manifests its lack of depth. As for the priest (Joel Edgerton, who directed, wrote, produced and acted in the film — a quadruple threat that no one truly asked for), he is a caricature rather than a character, spending most of his screentime terrorizing the participants.
Outside of the program’s frame is probably where the film is at its strongest. Jared’s relationship with his parents offers some welcome moments of subtility in an otherwise obvious film. Nancy (Nicole Kidman) is going through an internal conflict about her own beliefs throughout the course of the therapy, and is obviously a well-meaning parent. She moves away from home to be near Jared during the program, and supports him because she truly believes that it is what’s best for him. It is hard to hate her, and the film certainly would have benefited from developing other characters’ internal conflicts as much as Nancy’s. Jared’s father (Russell Crowe) does not get as much careful attention throughout the runtime, but his relationship with his son is quite interestingly explored later-on, turning what would have been a cliché narrative into something surprisingly more complex. These moments both save the film from total mediocrity and make it an even more bitter watch, as we see hints of what Boy Erased could have been if only the carefulness with which the treatment of Jared’s parents had been written with had been carried over to the other characters and relationships of the film.
Despite these few good points, Boy Erased remains hard to defend. Its obvious ignorance in the themes it wants to treat makes for a very uncomfortable watch for all the wrong reasons. This is a story that needed to be told — just not in this way, and probably not by these people. While neither of them are particularly remarkable, the direction, cinematography and editing would have been enough for creating something relevant had the subject matter been handled with more care. Hopefully someone will soon be able to tell this story with all the attention it deserves — for now, Boy Erased remains hardly redeemable.